Every outdoorsman has their specialty. Some guys religiously chase rutting elk during archery season. I know fly guys who can pick off tailing redfish with surgeon-like precision at 100 feet, while others can walk a zaraspook in a dixie cup of water and pull a bass out of it. Whatever the pursuit there is somebody passionate enough to fill that niche. For me, that niche is backcountry fly fishing.
Before I move on, I suppose defining what I mean by backcountry might help clarify things somewhat. Any destination that requires a substantial effort off the beaten path to find is the backcountry. Usually this means the destination is void of people, which in reality is most of our preference. Arriving at a location after spending hours of hiking only to find a plethora of people molesting your fish is suicide for anybody’s piscatorial morale. Most of the time these people heard about your spot through eavesdropping on a conversation at the local coffee shop, or a friend’s mom had a cousin whose dog’s groomer heard of a guy catching a blue fin tuna at your lake that sits at 10,000 feet in elevation. Sometimes its sheer, dumb luck that a newb just so happened to have coddiwompled upon your mountain river only to spoil it by throwing something other than the sacred dry fly. (And everybody knows dry flies are sacred because the all-time favorite disciple of Christ, John, was a dry fly fisherman.) If each of us had it our way we would make sure no one could find our beloved honey hole.
I’m fortunate that I live in Colorado where miles and miles of backcountry wilderness sits at my backdoor. So for years I’ve explored rivers and lakes without names and no permanent address on a topographic map. Some are seasonal lakes or rivers only to be found during runoff, and I suppose others are ones that the cartographer just never got around to naming so they sit patiently waiting for the weary fly fisherman to come along and unlock its secrets. These waters can be either quite rewarding, painfully stubborn, or barren of any life form. However, most tend to be quite willing to relinquish a few fish. At altitude, these fish have a short growing season which means they are quite occupied with filling their gut with as many invertebrate vittles as possible. This is excellent news for the angler, but certain precautions can enhance success and even the quality of fish one might land. Although most backcountry fish have rarely, if ever, seen a fly, they can still be extremely spooky at the slightest disturbance. The following are guidelines that I tend to follow trip after trip, and they have treated me well over the years.
Upon reaching a destination after a long hike it is extremely difficult to stay back and observe the water. This can be extremely painstaking especially if fish are rising steadily, but remaining back and watching will inform an angler exactly what the fish are doing by analyzing the rise forms. Secondly, this will not spook any cruising fish at the water’s edge. Sometimes the most productive area of a high mountain lake is the first several feet near the shore. I can think of three high mountain lakes where this is the case. On several occasions I have had to share my lake with other anglers. Knowing the cruising patterns of the resident fish, I knew they were spooking some exquisite trophies by not patiently and stealthily walking the shore line. They would haphazardly rush into the water just to cast a fly as far out into the center of the lake as they could. All the while trophy cutthroat trout were literally cruising inches behind them.
Although these fish tend to gorge themselves during the abbreviated growing season, there are certain rules that can be applied to fly selection. Mainly, I like flies that resemble everything yet look like nothing. Examples include, parachute adams, stimulators, hares ears, or the timeless pheasant tail nymph. Throwing patterns like these allow for mimicking a wide variety of food sources. It is extremely difficult to exactly predict what kind of bugs a backcountry site can sustain especially if it is the angler’s first visit there. Having flies of the Swiss army knife variety tends to swing the odds of matching the hatch in favor of the angler.
Various features tend to hold most of the fish at some point during the season or even during each day. I can think of two lakes in particular that have prominent features that attract fish in the mornings and during runoff. One of these features is a spring and the other is a shelf. Springs act as a type of inlet that feeds a lake and keeps it filled. If the spring is high enough above or far enough away from the lake it can potentially bring with it terrestrials (crickets, ants, termites or hoppers from within the timber). Fish at lake #1 stack on top of each other early in the morning to gorge on this spring fed buffet. Run off is an excellent time to fish this as well because the spring creek feeding the lake swells during this time and carries with it any tasty trout morsel clinging to its banks. The shelf at lake #2 acts as a feeding ground near a safe haven. Fish will readily cruise the shelf in search of groceries knowing a quick getaway is nearby.
Knowing the topography around the lake will yield insight into fish behavior and lake patterns. My favorite high mountain lake sits nestled below towering peaks that shade it from the sun. This essentially does two things. It prolongs ice off and it takes longer for the lake to warm in the morning. Knowing the approximate time a lake thaws allows an angler to pursue other waters that have been thawed. (Hitting ice off can be extremely difficult, and in some instances the water thaws before the access leading to the lake does.) Secondly, knowing what time the lake warms up in the morning allows me to eliminate certain spots because the fish won’t utilize them until later in the day. More specifically, this uneven warming creates a hatch gradient. Certain portions of the lake will yield hatches earlier than others. The fish know this, and it would behoove an angler to study these nuances at their lake.
Keep these three tips in mind next time you’ve spent hours hiking into that backcountry lake and they will increase the odds of landing more quality fish. Well, maybe not landing the fish but certainly hooking up more. The fight and landing part is up to you.